I've often suspected that paternalists like Mr Noah generally cares more about sending "a powerful message of social disapproval" than about the actual effects of paternalistic policy on welfare. It's worth remembering that liberalism is, at its roots, a philosophy of mutual disarmament in the face of intractable disagreement, and that its most fundamental principle is the presumption of liberty. According to J.S. Mill, "the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition... The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom..." I'm afraid Mr Noah's casual embrace of "baby authoritarianism" illustrates just how thoroughly the technocratic paternalism of American progressivism extinguished the liberal instincts of the left.
Consider two approaches to the Big Gulp phenomenon.
1. A governmental entity passes a resolution condemning large servings of sugary drinks.
2. A governmental entity bans large servings of sugary drinks.
Let me pretend that I support (2) and attempt to explain why it is a superior alternative to (1). My instinct is that a government resolution would not command any respect from the public. People would react by saying, "These politicians think large sugary drinks are bad for people? Who cares?" In order to get people to care about the opinions of politicians, you have to communicate their advice in the form of an ordinance.
That seems like a really ugly argument to me.
Imagine a world in which no government regulations were enforced. Instead, suppose that the government promulgated resolutions and standards (such as the definition of an ounce), and it was up to the public to comply or not. My guess is that what would emerge is that useful regulations would persist and regulations that are not cost-effective would not.
That seems like a world worth thinking more about.